Reviewed by Mark D. Walker (Guatemala 1971-73)
I was pleased to review this memoir of a fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras. It offered an opportunity to reflect on my own experience as an RPCV and learn more about Scott Berg and Honduras, which is why the author decided to share his legacy.
The book is based on a series of weekly letters he wrote to Laurie, his love interest during the two-year long-distance relationship. At the end of his experience, they returned their respective letters in a shoebox. After that, he lost contact with Laurie, and he doesn’t know where she is today.
The one hole in the narrative was the two weeks they spent together in Guatemala and parts of Honduras, which was a challenging time. Still, we don’t know what happened, since they weren’t writing to one another — this might have warranted an explanation since much of the dialogue in the book is about their desire to maintain their relationship.
The book begins with “Reflections” by Frank Almaguer, the Peace Corps Director to Honduras when Scott served, and who eventually became the American Ambassador to Honduras. According to Almaguer,
The book effectively captures in vibrant detail the day-to-day experiences — warts and all — of PCVs confronting the challenges inherent in their assignments and in settings where institutions are weak and personal relations with counterparts and neighbors, as well as with fellow PCVs, are central to the Peace Corps narrative . . ..
I identified with his story, although I was in Guatemala three years earlier in a fertilizer project with the Ministry of Agriculture. I was part of a team that introduced fertilizer to the Ministry of Agriculture of Honduras. We stayed in La Ceiba on the coast, one of the places Scott spent time in. We also visited the iconic Maya ruins of Copan that the author describes. Over the years, I returned to Honduras with several of the international groups I worked with, so Honduras was a familiar and vital country in my life, as well.
As was the case with my memoir, the author uses classic rock as a backdrop to his story. Dan Fogelberg had just come out with a new album, “Netherlands,” and the author and his friends often listened to Eagle’s album, Hotel California, which resulted in them calling friends at home from “Hotel Tegucigalpa,” where they usually stayed
Scott is plagued by constant intestinal ailments and expresses his frustration with a question many of us have asked after arriving back to his village after a long trip, “. . . I was sicker than a dog and dehydrated and slept for another two days before I was recovered enough to go back to work.”
As is often the case for those of us serving during this period in our country’s history, Scott had to deal with the Vietnam War:
. . . by the luck of the Draft Lottery in February 1972, I drew the number 300 and did not get drafted to go to Vietnam. I guess you could say that I really won that lottery. A bunch of my friends did get drafted to fight the Viet Cong (Gooks) in Vietnam and came back messed up, while some didn’t come back at all . . ..
The author made some excellent travel decisions, including time on the north coast for Carnival in La Ceiba and a trip to the Roatan Island where he could stay with a fellow volunteer. The island is part of the largest barrier reef in the world, so the snorkeling/diving is spectacular. As the author points out, “It really is like a separate country from the rest of Honduras, and the locals complain about it bitterly.”
At the end of his two years of service and the struggle of learning Spanish, the author makes the logical decision to see some of the rest of Latin America and head out on a two-month trek — I took one of my own, and it is something one never forgets. At one point, he gets lost outside of Trujillo, Peru, and I wanted to send him a copy of my Latin American Handbook, which was the best guide ever. He describes the inevitable endless bus rides — including one 23-hour stretch to Ayacucho, Peru
The two highlights of his trip were Machu Picchu and the Galapagos:
It was still raining so hard by morning that we decided to sleep in. The clouds hung in the valley like smoke. We finally got up, had breakfast, and caught the tourist bus back up to the Lost City. It was cloudy and drizzly, but we decided to climb Huayna Picchu (little mountain) and find the Temple of the Moon. A very narrow trail leads up the face of the cliff, and a series of steps are carved into the rock.
His reflections of his two-month trip are revealing, and raised questions many of us might have contemplated,
I had a huge Chinese dinner, and I can already feel the familiar rumblings in my stomach. I am sitting here looking into the mirror of my $8.00 hotel contemplating the end of my two-month South American adventure. I should be back in Teguc in three days. I wonder if it has been worth the $2,000 that it has cost me and why the hell I did it. Oh, I do think it was great and very important. You can’t really quantify what this kind of experience is worth in monetary terms.
Scott traveled to exciting places, and the one thing I missed was a few maps of his travels. The colored photos helped, but maps provide a clearer picture of how much territory he covered during his Peace Corps experience.
The wanderlust spirit of the author did not end after his trek through Latin America. He and his wife Anne owned a 40-foot sailboat for twenty-seven years, lived on board for seven years, and sailed extensively to the Bahamas until relocating to Florida. They even home-schooled their two boys from the sailboat. Scott worked in the Forestry Service before joining the Peace Corps, and this experience would open the doors for a successful career in the private forest and paper industry.
In the Epilogue, the author shared his Peace Corps legacy, which includes providing financial support for the daughter that a Peace Corps Volunteer left in Guatemala. Leaving his Honduran girlfriend “with the gift of a child was, to them, a totally appropriate and acceptable thing to do.”
He also tells of the two-room school he helped build in Puerto Golpe.
Unfortunately, all the hydrology research equipment he’d worked with at the Laureles project was ripped out two years after he left.
Although the timeline of the book was October 1976 to April 1979, fellow RPCV Joanne Roll points out the importance of the story today and the support it provides the RPCV group Amigos de Honduras:
This would be an excellent book to give to Vice President Kamala Harris and her team. The time is much earlier than the migration from Honduras north to the U.S. But it is authentic for a significant time and place and should educate her and her team. It also would, I hope, create interest and motivation for officials charged with investigating the huge migration from Central American countries, including Honduras, to further study the work of Peace Corps in those important countries over the last 60 years. The efforts of Amigos de Honduras should also be highlighted. Thank you for the book and the review.
Here are the instructions to purchase Letters from Peace Corps, Honduras as it is not available on Amazon:
Send $40 to:
95174 Cook Road
Fernandina Beach, FL 32034
Once he receives the money, he will send the book to the buyer, and $20.00 to Amigos de Honduras. The book cost him $32 to design, print, bind and mail, so he is not making any money on this deal. It is to raise money for Amigos.
Reviewer Mark D. Walker, (Guatemala 1971-73) for over forty years, worked with international agencies like MAP International, Hagar, and Make-A-Wish International.
His memoir is Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond. \
He’s a contributing writer for Revue Magazine and Literary Traveler. His wife and three children were born in Guatemala. You can contact him at Mark@MillionMileWalker.com